Drowning in Plastic: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Plastic Waste on Marginalized Communities

waste collection, Drowning in Plastic: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Plastic Waste on Marginalized Communities

There’s no doubt that climate change and plastic pollution negatively impacts everyone. We’ve all seen the data; for decades, environmental experts have been warning us that humankind is having a lasting and terrible effect on the planet, and we are now seeing the consequences of those actions. Unfortunately, the consequences are not proportionate, and marginalized communities are taking the brunt of the damage.

In areas where waste management is left up to the private sector, communities are swimming in waste, to the extent that it’s leaking into households. This comes with a myriad of issues, including disease, biodiversity loss, and more. Unfortunately, the people within these communities are also the least equipped to deal with the mismanaged waste. However, TONTOTON provides a solution.

Here’s how marginalized communities are most affected by plastic pollution and the ways in which TONTOTON is combatting this issue.

waste collection, Drowning in Plastic: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Plastic Waste on Marginalized Communities

Environmental justice is a term coined in the United States in the 1980s. At the time, it was created to address racial inequalities in regard to environmental land use. Today, it’s a globally recognized idea that promotes the fair treatment and involvement of all groups—no matter their race, gender, national origin, or income—in regard to environmental policies. It’s an action that’s largely necessitated by the exploitation of marginalized communities.

Those in low-income communities rarely have a voice. Because of this, a disproportionate amount of landfills, waste treatment centers, refining facilities, and other similar entities are placed in or around disadvantaged areas. This is due to a number of factors, not least of which is that the decision-makers, who often live in high-income areas, don’t want these types of facilities near their own communities, and because it’s low-income community members who often work in these industries.

This means that these communities are disproportionately affected by pollution from these facilities. They are the ones who deal with the consequences of landfill leakage, poor filtration systems, and other emissions. While wealthier countries have regulations in place to help minimize these impacts, middle- and low-income countries lack the proper ordinances, leaving marginalized communities to struggle on their own.

Plastic pollution and marginalized communities in Southeast Asia

waste collection, Drowning in Plastic: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Plastic Waste on Marginalized Communities

In 2021, the UNEP published a report entitled Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Plastic Pollution. They found that vulnerable communities are affected by plastic pollution in three key ways: ecosystem degradation (especially marine ecosystems), emissions from plastic production and incineration, and impacts from toxic substances. 

While global plastic pollution contributes to this problem (we talk about that in our article on global household waste here), there are a few other factors that cause low-income communities to be additionally burdened by plastic pollution, as outlined by the UNEP article. 

Those in poorer communities often live day-to-day. This means that, rather than purchasing items in bulk, they are more likely to purchase things like food, shampoo, or other necessary products in smaller portions. These small portions, while affordable, are usually packaged in single-use plastic. Sachets, in particular, are a growing issue in these communities. While they do provide hygienic products in single-use portions, the tiny packets can easily slip out of a bin, becoming plastic pollution even if it’s properly disposed of. These types of single-use plastic, when mismanaged, can quickly litter a small town.

Furthermore, these types of communities within Southeast Asia lack a formal waste management system. Instead, waste collection is left up to the private sector. Although waste pickers will collect high-value recyclable waste, it leaves out single-use plastic, like sachets and food packaging. Therefore, marginalized communities quickly become overwhelmed with non-recyclable single-use plastic and the hazards surrounding them.

The real dangers of plastic pollution

waste collection, Drowning in Plastic: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Plastic Waste on Marginalized Communities

Because of their proximity to landfills, treatment centers, and other waste management facilities as well as the overuse of single-use plastics, marginalized communities are drowning in plastic waste. In Sihanoukville, Cambodia, for example, floating communities often can’t even see the water due to mismanaged waste, much of it plastic. Not only is it unsightly to behold and uncomfortable to live among, but there are real dangers to this level of plastic pollution.

Certain plastics have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and development issues. Furthermore, it has been found that UV light from the sun causes plastic waste to emit greenhouse gasses, which can be harmful in large quantities. On top of this, mismanaged waste can also harbor disease and bacteria and attracts disease-carrying animals, like rats. “When the water rises, it is full of bacteria and disease because it’s so dirty,” said a woman from Sihanoukville. “It makes our kids poorly.”

Beyond the health implications, plastic pollution prevents tourism, which many of these coastal communities could take advantage of in order to boost their economies. Beaches that could be filled with tourists are instead littered with plastic waste, which will soon be lost to our oceans. “I want the tourists who visit Sihanoukville to see a clean environment,” said Bopha, a resident of Oh Vietnam who collects plastic waste for TONTOTON. “Also, maybe then, more tourists will come.”

The plastic pollution problem poses a myriad of issues for marginalized communities, yet nothing changes because those within these communities lack the voice and resources to make a change. However, through our certified plastic credit system, TONTOTON is able to provide the resources to empower community members to take plastic pollution into their own hands.

Empowering marginalized communities to rescue themselves from plastic pollution

waste collection, Drowning in Plastic: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Plastic Waste on Marginalized Communities

Our solution to plastic pollution seeks to place power in the hands of those who have none. A big reason why vulnerable communities are the greatest victims of plastic pollution is that they lack the resources to address the issue. While waste pickers are able to sort through and collect recyclable plastic waste, it still leaves a large portion of plastic waste left in the environment. However, through funding from our certified plastic credit system, we’ve monetized low-value, post-consumer plastic in order to employ local community members to clean up their own communities.

Currently, 17.8% of Cambodians live below the poverty line, and low-skilled workers earn an average of US$2.20 per day. Our employees are able to earn up to US$25.00 per day while cleaning their own neighborhood. 

“Collecting waste material means I can be with my family more,” says one of our employees, who suffers from impeded movement from a previous stroke. TONTOTON provided him with much-needed income that he can collect on his own terms. 

This is especially important post-COVID. Many low-skilled workers lost valuable income during strict lockdowns. Working for TONTOTON has allowed them to recoup some of their finances and survive in the midst of economic turmoil. “If it wasn’t for TONTOTON, it would have been so hard for me,” said Sorn SreyMom, a waste collector who lost her previous job due to COVID.

Thanks to the hard efforts of our waste collectors, there has been a noticeable change in the amount of plastic pollution in the villages around Sihanoukville in the few short months that TONTOTON has been in operation there. We are able to see clear water in areas that had been completely covered in mismanaged waste. Furthermore, our waste collectors have seen daily income of anywhere between US$5 – US$25, which is well above the daily average for low-skilled workers.

This is a win for all; not only are those in marginalized communities able to see an instant and direct positive change through employed work, but we’ve also been able to rescue tons of plastic waste before it’s lost to our oceans.

Beyond waste collection, we work with community members to educate them on the dangers of plastic pollution and provide bins to collect plastic waste at the source in order to try and prevent plastic pollution before it occurs. Once the plastic waste is collected, we send it to cement factories where it is converted into raw materials and energy, resulting in zero waste. 

Our solution to plastic pollution and waste collection is both socially and environmentally minded, giving power to those who have historically had none. If your company is looking to take responsibility for its plastic waste in a way that results in an immediate and immensely positive way for those who need it most, then partner with TONTOTON.